New management at one of the oldest marine protected areas

The business of marine protected areas (MPAs for short) is as diverse and complex as the environment we are managing. Recently my wife Nicola and I were afforded the great honor to serve as Administrator and Administrative Assistant of the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park (ECLSP) here in The Bahamas. Designated as a national park in 1959 and as a “no-take zone” in 1986, ECLSP is one of the oldest marine parks in the world. It is managed by the Bahamas National Trust, a non-governmental organization that operates the entire national parks system of The Bahamas.

Nicola Ierna, oversees the Exuma Cays Land ad Sea Park with her husband Captain Joseph Ierna.

Nicola Ierna, oversees the Exuma Cays Land ad Sea Park with her husband Captain Joseph Ierna.

The success of the ECLSP in protecting populations of key species and preserving the health of coral reef ecosystems is a testament to the foresight of its founders, who recommended protecting an entire landscape, including islands; nearshore habitats, like mangroves and seagrass beds that serve as nursery areas for many species; inshore and offshore reefs; and deep-sea areas. In doing so, they recognized how all of these areas are connected and how effective conservation includes protecting intact ecosystems rather than small pieces. In the 1980s the idea of ecosystem protection was advanced further by making the park a “no-take zone,” creating a refuge for marine species by prohibiting any removal of marine life or other resources. Active management of users by The Bahamas National Park, including patrols of the park and installation of moorings for visitors to prevent damage from anchoring in sensitive areas, has further promoted conservation of the park, resulting in the healthy reefs and marine life that we see today.

The ECLSP is not without its threats, however; illegal poaching remains an issue in some parts of the park. As the wonders of the park attract more visitors, balancing ecosystem protection with visitor use is also a challenge.

With extensive planning and careful implementation, the ECLSP is providing vessels with safe and effective mooring systems in a pristine marine environment. We currently have seven active mooring fields spread throughout the park. As well as protecting the seabed, the moorings provide a source of sustainable funding for park operations.

Anchoring off the sandbar in Warderick Wells.

Anchoring off the sandbar in Warderick Wells.

All of our mooring fields allow cruisers to safely secure their vessel within close proximity to a plethora of incredible attractions. Cambridge Cay in the south is known for its superb protection in all wind directions and is close to fantastic snorkeling. Warderick Wells in the central area is famous for allowing cruisers to step directly from their boat onto a pristine sandbar. And visitors to Shroud Cay in the north can spend days exploring miles and miles of creeks and mangroves. Each unique location offers its own special “to do” list.

The ECLSP highlights the ability of a large and well-managed marine park to not just preserve the beauty of an area, but also to provide critical protection to marine life to maintain the delicate balance and health of coral reefs and other marine ecosystems.

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We are encouraged here at the ECLSP. We are on the forefront of setting new standards in operating financially sustainable national parks, including eventually across The Bahamas’ national system of 32 sites. This is the future for protected areas.

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